Zoic Stops Time, Creates Historic ‘Frozen Moment’ Sequence for ‘CSI’ Premiere

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 10/6/09.

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On September 24th, CBS broadcast the premiere episode of the 10th season of its venerable crime procedural drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation . The episode cold opened with a lengthy, two-and-a-half minute long “frozen moment” sequence, showing us a single moment in a robbery attempt involving the main characters. This sequence, which made broadcast television history, and was created by Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios.

The camera starts in the morgue, flying through a water spray over a number of corpses on gurneys. The environment is in total disarray, with bodies falling out of the coolers, and smoke and debris floating in midair. We travel past a coroner screaming into a phone and around a corner, to find Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall, Starship Troopers) in mid-leap as he whacks one of the robbers in the head, sending the man’s weapon flying. The camera swoops through floating medical instruments past the first tableau and up into the ceiling. One floor up, we find the same chaos in the Lab, with the CSIs and lab techs frozen in mid-motion.

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The camera continues past a book case tipping over, with falling curios, books and antiques suspended in shattered glass. Panning right and heading into the DNA Lab, the camera flies past one of the lab techs with a bullet exploding out of her shoulder, as she crashes through plate glass while suspended three feet off the ground. Wiping past her into the Lab proper, the camera finds Dr. Raymond Langston (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix, Pee Wee’s Playhouse) kicking a second robber Morpheus-style through plate glass, while several rounds of ammunition leave trails of disturbed air in their wakes.

Flying smoothly past Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger, Species, Species II) and over an exploding lab experiment, the camera continues down the hall past David Hodges (Wallace Langham, Weird Science) and Wendy Simms (Liz Vassey, The Tick), who hang suspended horizontally in midair as they leap to avoid gunfire, and into the muzzle flash of the gun of another robber.

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We transition from the muzzle flash to the glare of a flashlight held by yet another robber, and the camera trucks backwards out of a van with bullet holes and impact sparks all around. Pulling back the camera passes a robber firing at our last two CSIs, Nicholas Stokes (George Eads, ER) and Sara Grissom (Jorja Fox, ER, The West Wing), who fire back attempting to stop the theft of a body. The sequence finishes with the camera panning around to reveal Nick and Sara’s faces.

Naren Shankar, CSI’s executive producer, was impressed by a short film released in April, 2009 to promote Philips Cinema 21:9 LCD televisions. The short, entitled Carousel and produced by Adam Berg and London’s Stink Digital, was a two-minute, 19-second frozen moment sequence of police battling bank robbers dressed as scary clowns.

At CSI’s season nine wrap party, Shankar approached Zoic visual effects supervisor Rik Shorten, and asked if a similar scene could be created for the show. Shorten replied, “you write it, I’ll shoot it.”

The sequence was created as the cold open for the show’s 10th season premiere episode, “Family Affair.” Zoic had produced frozen moment shots for CSI before, but never a sequence of such complexity and length (it clocks in at two minutes, 17 seconds). The sequence was three script pages long, and required three full days of shooting on the main first unit stages, involving the primary cast members. Add to that a prep day, and an additional half-day to shoot the van tableau. The Philips spot had much greater resources – but CSI had an entire season of television to shoot. Shorten says that the producers provided Zoic with all the time, resources and support that could possibly be spared.

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The main three-day shoot employed four main motion control setups. A great deal of expense and effort went toward keeping the actors comfortable, and minimizing the time that talent would spend holding still will suspended in harness rigs.

The first portion to be shot, on days one and two, was the sequence in the DNA Lab. It was the largest and most complex set piece. Shorten and the Zoic team wrote and mapped out the shots on the prep day, giving them time to experiment on the day of the shoot, with blocking, track placement, lenses, the placement of practical elements and extras, etc. What the team learned on the first day was instrumental in making sure the rest of the sequence could be completed in the remaining days allowed.

The morgue tableau and hallway sequence were shot on day three. The hallway tableau featured Doc Robbins attacking a robber (called an “MIB” on set). Actor Hall was propped up on apple boxes and suspended by wires, while the camera moved slowly past on a track. While this one tableau sequence makes up about 20 seconds of the final product, the camera move took about three minutes to shoot.

For each shot, Shorten and his people wrote and planned out the shot with stand-ins; consulted with and got approval from the episode’s director, executive producer Kenneth Fink; ran a test shot on video; and then brought in the actors to shoot the real footage.

Some actors, like Helgenberger and Fishburne, only had to spend 10- to 15 minutes rigged up for their sequences. Other actors spend as long as a half hour held up by wires, stunt harnesses, boxes, greenscreen stands and articulated pads. Shorten says these rigs are never comfortable; and of course it’s not easy to hold perfectly still for minutes at a time. But everything possible was done to keep the actors in the rig for as brief a time as possible.

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The final tableau, of Nick and Sara firing on the van, was shot separately, taking a half a day. This scene was the most difficult and time-consuming to produce, as it was shot without motion control – no track, just a crane shot, and no clean plates. The paint-out and stilling of the actors for this sequence was an incredible amount of work. In fact, dozens of still photos of actors Eads and Fox were taken, and blended and morphed together to create motionless 3D elements of the two actors. These elements were then composited into the shot.

Shorten says that he is immensely proud of the work that he and Zoic did to create this unique and amazing sequence. “This could not have been accomplished without the incredible talents of every department on the show. Our production crew really came through, exceeding my expectations. Our excellent team of artists here at Zoic gave up their summer to create this fantastic sequence.

“I’m so grateful to everyone for their contributions. Most importantly, the show and the network are thrilled with the sequence, and the fan websites are still discussing the premier two months later – that’s the best compliment we could get!”

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More info: CSI on CBS.com ; Zoic Studios website; CSI on Hulu.